How the Burmese alphabet is taught is changing

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education announced a reform to its kindergarten curriculum, a reform that has attracted much criticism within the Burmese-speaking community. What has sparked the most controversy is a sweeping change in the way the Burmese alphabet is taught. Beginning in the next academic year, Burmese kindergartners will no longer be taught 8 of the 33 letters, which will instead be taught in the subsequent grade.

How is the Burmese alphabet currently taught?

For generations, the Burmese alphabet has been taught in the following sequence, in a set of 5 groups or rows consisting of 5 letters each, and a separate group of 8 miscellaneous letters:

က

(The letters that will no longer be taught at kindergarten level are bolded.)

Like most Indic scripts (Khmer, Thai, Devanagari, etc.), the Burmese alphabet follows the standard and logical order (with the last 8 letters being the exception). Every row is ordered as follows:

  • 1st is the unaspirated form (k, s, t, p),
  • 2nd is the aspirated form (kh, hs, ht, ph),
  • 3rd and 4th are the voiced forms (g, z, d, b),
  • 5th is a nasal consonant (ng, ny, n, m).

So cherished are Burmese letters that the prolific Burmese poet, Tin Moe, made them the subject of some of his work, devising poems for all 33 letters to help children learn the Burmese alphabet. For instance, the poem for the letter ဌ (hta-wun-be) goes like this:

ဌဝမ်းဘဲ ဌဝမ်းဘဲ၊
ရေကူးသင်တဲ့ ဌဝမ်းဘဲ၊
တစ်ခါတုန်းက ဌဝမ်းဘဲ၊
ယက်ကန် ယက်ကန် နောက်ပြန်ဆွဲ
ဟော…သည်လိုဆွဲ

Which letters will no longer be taught?

To much public consternation, when the new curriculum is implemented, teachers will postpone the teaching of 8 letters to the 1st grade.

No. Letter Name of Letter
 1 ဃကြီး Ga-gyi
 2 ဈမျဉ်းဆွဲ Za-myin-zwe
 3 ဋသန်လျင်းချိတ် Ta-tha-lin-gyeit
 4 ဌဝမ်းဘဲ Hta-wun-be
 5 ဍရင်ကောက် Da-yin-gauk
 6 ဎရေမှုတ် Da-ye-mot
 7 ဏကြီး Na-gyi
 8 ဠကြီး La-gyi

Is this a big deal?

Reactions against this change have been quite negative on Facebook and Burmese language social media, with some asking how difficult it is to use learn these letters, and others concerned about changes to the historical integrity of the Burmese language.

Fact No. 1: These letters aren’t regularly encountered

But I think this is really a question of practicality and daily usage. The fact of the matter is that the majority of the letters being excluded from kindergarten pedagogy are rarely used.  Of the 8 letters, I would argue that the most commonly seen letters are ဈ, ဌ and ဏ. And even then, the letters are used to spell a select number of words.

Let’s take the example of ဈ. The only commonly encountered word spelled with ဈ is ‘market,’ spelled ဈေး (zei). And for ဌ, it’s ဌာန (‘department,’ htana) and ဌေး (‘rich,’ htei). For ဏ, it’s ခဏ (‘moment,’ khana).

I consulted the Burmese Language Commission’s Official Speller (မြန်မာစာလုံးပေါင်းသတ်ပုံကျမ်း) to get a better sense of how commonly used these letters are. The Speller lists words by letter, so I counted the number of words beginning with these 8 letters in question (which I know doesn’t account for letters beginning elsewhere in a word, but provides a quick sampling). Quite sparse, I must say:

Letter Count

4

17

2

10

0

0

0

0

Plus, unlike most Burmese letters, the forms of these 8 letters in question are unusually complex, having numerous curvatures and angles not found elsewhere in the alphabet. To illustrate, below are some stacked consonant combinations possible with some of the letters that will not be taught at kindergarten level:

ဋ္ဋ ဋ္ဌ ဍ္ဍ ဍ္ဎ ဏ္ဍ

That’s not to say that the Burmese should eliminate these letters. Where these 8 letters become crucial is in spelling loanwords (typically academic and religious lexicon) from Pali and Sanskrit. Burmese is historically important in that it is one of few native scripts with a long history of transcribing Pali, along with Sinhala, Tai Tham, and Khmer. Consequently, for many loanwords, Burmese retains the exact or slightly abbreviated forms of their original spellings in Pali and Sanskrit. A large portion of Burmese vocabulary makes use of terms derived from Pali and Sanskrit, both of which make abundant use of these letters, especially those in the ဋ group (ဋ, ဌ, ဍ, ဎ, ဏ).

Without these letters, we Burmese would be at a loss to spell words like ‘sangha’ (သံဃာ), ‘cremation’ (ဈာပန), ‘Tipitaka’ (ပိဋကတ်), ‘chairman’ (ဥက္ကဌ), ‘prestige’ (ဂုဏ်) and ‘pavilion’ (မဏ္ဍပ်).

Fact No. 2: These letters aren’t phonetically distinct

Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that these 8 letters are fundamentally identical in pronunciation to other letters (i.e., they’re phonetic duplicates). The interesting fact of the Burmese alphabet is that by overlaying an Indic writing system with the less complex phonology of Burmese, many letters that are pronounced distinctly in Indian languages, are pronounced exactly the same in Burmese. Here’s what I mean:

is pronounced the same as…
ဒ, ဓ
ဒ, ဓ

It’s a quirk I grappled with when I first learned to read Burmese, until I learned the history behind this. In a nutshell, the 33 Burmese letters represent only 23 distinct sounds.

As a result, kindergartners could technically still replicate the sounds these letters represent, without any detriment to pronunciation. I guess the worry may be that it may prime kindergartners in substituting incorrect letters.

Fact No. 3: These are not the only letters omitted from the Burmese alphabet.

It’s a little known fact that Burmese is also fully capable of transcribing the orthographic nuances of Sanskrit, which has a more complex phonology than Pali. In fact, unlike neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, Burma does not teach these Sanskrit-specific letters, because they’re no longer encountered in daily life (having fallen out of modern-day usage).

Letter Sanskrit (IAST)
śa
ṣa

In Burma, Pali spellings of Indic loanwords have largely supplanted their Sanskrit forms, meaning that letters like ၐ and ၑ have been subsumed by သ. This is in contrast to Thailand and Cambodia, which have retained Sanskrit forms for many loanwords.

Outcomes?

What will be interesting to see is whether these changes will actually help teachers devote more time to teaching other subjects and concepts, and whether these modifications will help Burmese kids grasp the Burmese writing system more easily and fluently.

One thought on “How the Burmese alphabet is taught is changing

  1. Wagaung says:

    Any mention of the fate of other similar letters such as ekkra u as in okkahta(chairman), kyet u (egg), u hnauk (brain), or okksa (thing, stuff, belonging, property), and ekkra é as in ékarit (emperor) or ériya (area)? There are also ekkra ei (end of statement followed by a stop), ekkra ee (this), ekkra ywé (and, because), and ekkra hnike (at, in, among).

    Every generation has had to learn these letters, and they have stood the test of time, not least the drive in the sixties from Mandalay writers to ‘write as we speak’. Since we cannot possibly eliminate them from the alphabet we’ll only end up with kids who can’t spell zay (market) or htana (department), never mind sangha, until they have been taught the correct way (and to break a bad habit) belatedly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s